Beck’s sheet music album is a wake-up call

It’s been revealed this week that slacker-turned-seminal musician Beck will be releasing a brand new album this December. Great news you’re thinking? Well it is, but mainly for those with the ability to read sheet music.

Song Reader, the name of this new release, will comprise of 20 booklets, one for each individual song. These will include lyrics and music notations for a variety of instruments, all of which will be handily presented in a hard-cover carrying case detailed with designs from over a dozen artists.

Beck claims that Song Reader is a way of delving into ‘what an album can be at the end of 2012’. Renditions interpreted by fans and select musicians of these previously unreleased and, more importantly, unrecorded tracks will be featured online via publisher McSweeney’s website.

Now this kind of thing could be easily perceived as hipster nonsense, harping back to the gramophone era in the middle of the digital takeover. Certainly I think there may well be an element of profiting from false nostalgia, releasing an entirely new project in a retro format, albeit incidental or otherwise. However, there’s more to this venture than that.

At face value it’s a musical experiment, and a lavish one at that. Moreover, it’s also a pretty bold statement – a two-fingered salute to illegal downloads, intentional leaks and the dominance of online music sales compared to physical purchases. Song Reader is an intervention for those that have fallen into the habit of passively adding releases to their collection at the click of a finger. It calls for enthusiasm, participation and the realisation that although YouTube and iTunes clearly have their uses, there is more to music than an MP3.

What Beck has created is a wake-up call. Music is a craft not just a commodity.